NEW YORK- This past election day, New York City became one of the first municipalities in the country to decriminalize small amounts of young black men. Amendment 64, which passed with a resounding 73% of the vote, will allow groups of up to five young black men, to walk together down the street without being subjected to fearful suspicion or police harassment, solely on the basis of their age, gender, and skin tone.
Proponents of the law see it as marking a sea change in national opinion on an issue that a few short years ago seemed settled in their opposition’s favor. In most of the country, being a young black male is still punished with a fifteen-year mandatory minimum of near constant social stigma, and a heightened risk of police brutality. In some jurisdictions, the offense remains punishable by death.
But Derrick Simms, of the Center for Safe and Responsible Young Black Male Existence, believes momentum is on the side of change:
“I think if you look at the polling, the more people learn about this issue, the more they come to our side of things. It’s obviously a challenge because there’s been so much misinformation out there.”
Simms explained that one of the most persuasive arguments his campaign employed was about the relative safety of young blacks, compared to other legal forms of men:
“Obviously, all men are dangerous. But you’re never going to have a culture without them, it’s just human nature. And if you look at the raw data, older white men actually pose a significantly greater threat than young blacks, across almost every category. They’re more likely to crash the global financial system, start wars built on lies…Older white men are orders of magnitude more likely to be responsible for the ecological destruction of the planet and the end of all human life, than young blacks are. When you show people that context, young black men actually start to look like a safe alternative.”
Another boost for the movement came this past July when in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama revealed that as an adolescent in Indonesia, he too had been a young black male. While Obama characterized his experiments with young blackness as an angstful, post-racial teenager’s way of acting out, Simms believes the knowledge that a young black male grew up to be president has made the public less likely to clutch their purses to their sides, and avert their gazes while passing young black men on the street.
Elizabeth Petty, a mother and designer of artisanal soap dishes on the Upper East Side, says that learning how many of her favorite celebrities were once young black men led her to support the amendment:
“You just look at a Willis Smith, or a Morgan Friedman, and you say: Imagine if they were shot by police, back when they were young, and their very existence was a provocation for violence? Can you imagine a world without “Hitch”? I mean I can, but I don’t want to!”
Still, at least 24% of the city’s voters oppose decrimininalization. Among the law’s most vocal opponents is Ed Lynch, president of White Dads Against Young Black Men. Lynch, 46, told “Guilt of a Liberal” he worries about the message the new law will send:
“The problem isn’t young black men per se, it’s about what they lead to. And I just worry what kind of message we’re sending our children, if we say they can’t assume that every young black male they encounter is a gangster or a vagrant…how are they going to make responsible choices to protect their own safety. When I think about my daughter with a bunch of young black men, the kind with those saggy pants and huge rippling muscles, skin smooth as fine Belgian chocolate, their very beings pulsing with primordial rhythm and sexual virility…”
Lynch trailed off, suddenly out-of-breath. When asked to complete his sentence, to explain what it was he felt or did when thinking about his daughter with young black men, he declined to comment, his pale, veiny hands clutching the arms of his rocking chair, as he swung back and forth with increasing velocity, sweating bullets, and panting like a small, emphysemic dog.
According to Carl Holmes, professor of Sociology at Columbia University, even if one accepts that young black men pose a unique threat, the last half-century of public policy is proof that criminalization isn’t an effective solution.
“Some may find it counter-intuitive but, all the latest research in the field suggests that identifying an entire demographic group with its most violent and anti-social members, stigmatizing them in mass media, waiving their constitutional rights to equal protection and unlawful searches, and, periodically allowing law enforcement officials or concerned citizens to execute them with the retroactive sanction of the courts…actually doesn’t help members of that group become more assimilated and productive members of society.”
While Derrick Sims sees a lot of cause for hope, he fears that passing the law will prove to be easier than enforcing it:
“Because this kind of criminalization is intangible…The only way to enforce it is for people to enforce it within themselves. We need everybody who voted with us on Tuesday to take it on him or herself not to project fear or suspicion onto every group of young black men they come across. I understand that isn’t easy, and that the opposite reaction is often conditioned and unconscious.”
I assured Derrick that I had never been afraid of a group of young black men that hang out in front of the bodega by my apartment building every night around one a.m. and always seem to be laughing sinisterly at me whenever I walk by.
I told him he could believe me, because my best new friend was black, and that new friend’s name was Derrick. Then something came up, and he had to go.
At press time “Guilt of a Liberal” has still received no word from Derrick about whether or not he’d want to see “Twelve Years a Slave” with us tonight at Sunshine Cinemas. We believe it would be an excellent opportunity for Derrick to connect with both this reporter AND his own heritage. Win Win!